‘As a protest record, surprisingly enough, More Arriving falls short of its high standards due to bland generalisations, such as “which racist do you want on your bank note?” And not least because the English painter J.M.W. Turner – the new face of the 20 pound note – campaigned for the abolition of slavery.’
[other voices, with a note of irony] “guys – he’s got a point, he’s got a point, hasn’t he? Oh man!‘
From Sarathy Korwar (feat. Zia Ahmed), ‘Turner on the 20’ (2020)
J.M.W. Turner’s self-portrait, painted in 1799 – the year he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy of Arts and as his artistic reputation rocketed – has long been treated as iconic.
Taken as a bold encapsulation of the young artist’s self-confidence and an emblem of a new kind of ‘Romantic’ artistic identity, it has been used as an illustration countless time. In February 2020 it was used, yet again, in a way which ensured that you’re likely to have had it in your pocket at some point. From that date it featured in the design of the new £20 note, the Bank of England’s then-Governor, Mark Carney, asserting: ‘Our banknotes celebrate the UK’s extraordinarily rich and diverse heritage and highlight the contributions of its greatest citizens. Turner’s art was transformative’.
The new banknote design and Turner’s name surfaced unexpectedly in an online review of the 2019 album More Arriving by Sarathy Korwar, in words which were quoted in the track produced in response by Korwar with the poet Zia Ahmed: ‘Turner on the 20’ (available to download with profits going to charity, and see here). Korwar identifies the track as ‘challenging the notion that because Turner has been officially celebrated, we should no longer be calling out the racism that the economy of Britain has historically been built on’ (see here).
Ahmed’s words punctuate the track ironically with post-racial platitudes (‘I don’t see race / I just see mates’) and well-worn claims to English exceptionalism (‘land of the liberals … land of the moderates’). Underpinned by the itinerant imaginary of Korwar’s musical aesthetic (which is ‘predominantly based in jazz and Indian classical music but also incorporates elements of hip-hop, electronic music and more’) and the performers’ personal histories (Ahmed a Londoner; Korwar identifies as ‘US-born, Indian-raised, London-based’) the track confronts the wish to identify British heroes and, as they put it, ‘Forget the darker days / just dance the past away’. The track concludes with words that wryly allude to the presence of the image of Sir Winston Churchill – a political figure whose documented racism has proved especially contentious – on the £5 note: ‘Churchill on the fiver / Don’t let it trouble you / Cos’ now we’ve got J.M.W.’
But does that claim that Turner ‘campaigned for abolition of slavery’ hold? As the art historian and Turner specialist Sam Smiles noted in the catalogue of the Tate exhibition ‘Turner’s Modern World’ (2020), the painter expressed ‘humanitarian sympathies’ in a coded way in several images, and ‘From at least the 1820s [his] position on slavery appears to have shared common ground with the majority of public opinion’. Whether that qualifies him as an active ‘campaigner’ is moot, and we now know he benefited financially from the institution of plantation slavery, not least by having patrons involved in the slave economy. Perhaps what ‘Turner on the 20’ demonstrates, above all, is that seeking out ‘good guys’ who can unambiguously validate a liberal and progressive vision of British art history can result in distortions or exaggerations of the historical record, albeit more subtle than those which arise when people insist upon the irrelevance of empire’s histories.